21/02/2006 - 21:00

Touch of bravado to Nats’ plan

21/02/2006 - 21:00

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Last week’s State Scene touched on the fact that the National Party has decided to go it alone electorally, to refuse to enter into coalition with the Liberals, under any circumstances.

Touch of bravado to Nats’ plan

Last week’s State Scene touched on the fact that the National Party has decided to go it alone electorally, to refuse to enter into coalition with the Liberals, under any circumstances.

In other words never ever again.

Put another way, this anti-coalitionist resolve means that even if the Matt Birney-led Liberals win more seats than Labor in February 2009, but not enough to form a government in their own right, the Nationals will refuse to team-up to create a conservative government.

Instead, they’ll let Mr Birney become premier and his party deputy, Troy Buswell, be deputy premier, which contrasts to the 1993-2001 Richard Court-Hendy Cowan coalition governments where the former was premier and latter deputy premier.

Put differently, the Brendan Grylls-led Nationals are set to stay outside the tent rather than enter it.

Entering the conservative tent would probably ensure the Nationals two ministerial posts – agriculture and transport – since both these most directly impinge upon their backers who, more often than not, are wheat and sheep farmers across Western Australia’s farm belt between Geraldton, Esperance and Augusta.

So we’re talking of the possibility of a minority Liberal government.

The first thing that must be said about this determination to remain outside the tent is that it’s not as new an idea as may initially appear.

Whether to enter or remain outside the conservative tent has been an issue that’s caused considerable ongoing anguish for Nationals for years.

So much so that one of their leading non-parliamentary members, Ron Elphick, wrote a book titled Coalition or Crossbench: The Country Party Dilemma: A History of the Country Party/National Party Organization of WA, which the party published in 1996.

Secondly, it will be interesting to see if Mr Grylls can hold to such a resolution should the day ever arrive where he and Mr Birney together gained 30 or more lower house seats, thereby giving conservatives a combined majority.

The choice confronting Mr Grylls would be whether to opt for a chauffeur-driven ministerial limousine or go without one. That would be a far tougher decision when such a situation actually arrives.

State Scene is assured, however, that his resolve to stay outside the tent is rock solid – he simply won’t, under any circumstances, countenance a coalition with the Liberals.

Presumably that also applies to Labor, if Alan Carpenter wins most seats but not enough to form a left-of-centre government.

It’s worth recalling that this was precisely what the Hendy Cowan-led Nationals said before the 1986 election, won comfortably by Brian Burke-led Labor.

But that didn’t stop a Liberal-National coalition emerging in 1993, with Mr Cowan becoming deputy premier.

One reason for his 1986 ‘stay outside the tent’ approach was that, at the time, all the polls suggested Labor would be returned easily, which it was.

In other words, Mr Cowan’s stand really counted for nought, since a day of reckoning was unlikely to eventuate.

The pertinent question worth asking today is, therefore, whether Mr Grylls and his party boffins expect Labor to win in 2009.

If so, his anti-coalitionist stand means as little as did Mr Cowan’s in 1986, since Mr Cowan simply gauged the electoral mood correctly.

And when things turned around six years later, following that huge Labor catastrophe called WA Inc, he promptly grabbed the perks of office, including especially that chauffeur-driven limousine.

More interesting – and this may further help explain Mr Grylls’ decision to emulate Mr Cowan’s 1986 stance – is that the Nationals at that election added four seats to the two already held by Mr Cowan (Merredin) and his deputy Matt Stephens (Stirling).

Three of these four new seats were won from the Liberals.

Clearly Mr Grylls is hoping for something akin to that in 2009.

The Nationals are facing extinction in February 2009 because of Jim Mc-Ginty’s so-called one-vote-one-value legislation, which leaves the party with only the slightest chance of winning any of the 11 rural seats in the 59-member  lower house .

Those 11 rural seats in the Kimberley, Pilbara, Murchison, Goldfields and Wheatbelt are thus the ones they’re compelled to focus all attention upon.

This is why the blueprint the Nationals have drawn up has been dubbed the ‘48-11 stand alone plan’.

The remaining 48 seats are confined to a boomerang-shaped belt of south-west coastal WA, extending from Mindarie to Augusta. These seats will be shared between Labor and Liberal candidates; the Carpenter and Birney led teams.

The more of the 11 seats Mr Grylls’ team can win, the greater the Nationals’ chance of gaining the balance of power.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee the balance of power will be realised even if the Nationals do win, say, four of the 11 seats, which is not very likely.

If anything it’s likely to be just two.

But it could just as likely be only one, because of the added problem of what their former leader, Max Trenorden, may do.

The Nationals treated Mr Trenorden in an extremely shabby fashion by dumping him. They were so impetuous in getting Mr Grylls up as leader that Mr Trenorden can no longer really be considered as being inside the Nationals’ tent.

No-one knows what he plans to do at the coming election. The Nationals hope he’ll stand aside for one of their currently sitting members.

But will he? And if he doesn’t, what can the Nationals do about it?

They’ll need to tread warily because Mr Trenorden has a range of options, including standing as an independent or perhaps even a Liberal. And, if the former option, Labor could well preference him ahead of a National candidate.

Clearly, the Trenorden conundrum severely restricts the ‘48-11 stand alone plan’.

But is there anything else the Nationals can do?

The title of Mr Elphick’s 1996 book suggests they only have two mutually exclusive options – coalition or the crossbenches.

But the future is far from that bleak for rural or regional voters.

And what State Scene has to say here is something dogged Nationals such as Mr Grylls may not wish to hear.

But the fact of the matter is that the party with the biggest voter following in regional WA, including among farmers, isn’t the Nationals, but the Liberals.

There’s nothing stopping Mr Grylls from initiating confidential talks with Mr Birney to explore the possibility of creating a fusion party, under the Liberal banner.

Such negotiations could have as the agenda’s first item – the key to a fusion – the slotting in of Mr Grylls and as many as possible of his Nationals parliamentary colleagues into what would be deduced to be winnable lower and/or upper house seats.

After all, Labor will be reshuffling, that is, relocating, some MPs within its parliamentary contingent to ensure those now holding regional seats will get to contest seats seen as winnable under the McGinty redistribution.

If Labor can do this, surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for the conservatives.

True, big isn’t necessarily beautiful. Having a single conservative party is not necessarily the most desirable option. But is it less beautiful than being tiny and facing the prospect of vanishing?

Gaining representational power for regional WA is not a beauty contest. It’s about numbers in the state parliament.

That being so, to only consider the coalition and crossbench options and to discount fusion is being short sighted for non-Labor Western Australians living in the bush, outside that so-called 48-seat electoral boomerang.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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